A Fairly Brief History of Heaven’s Gate – Ted Cowan

This note touches on geologic, forest, soil, and human use of Heaven’s Gate and the La Cloche with a view to understanding a bit more about what is there and why the area is special. 

There are obstacles to understanding the La Cloche’s past.  The first is grasping the time span.  Each step took more time than we can imagine.  But it has not stopped, and we can see it.  Trees are taller in our time.  Put a piece of limestone under a downspout for 20 years.  It will erode an inch or so. 

Secondly, the forces are beyond our experience.  We can bend steel; but cannot move or bend plates of the earth.  We can estimate the power and time needed; but the numbers are beyond our ken. 

Third, facts and information to test the opinions we rely on in lieu of facts are sparse. 

And a caution: This note is recent gleanings by an amateur, not insights of a disciplined professional.

Ancient Geology, In Stages

None of this has ended.  It is happening so slowly we don’t notice recent changes.  But the plates are still moving with a minor tremor every few years.  Erosion continues and sediments are still being laid.

More Recent Geology, Five Ice Ages

We’ve had five ice ages.  The first started 35 million years ago.  The ice was two to four miles thick.  The weight pressed the ice out and the ice front moved away from the center.  Snow at the front increased its area.  Soil and loose rocks were picked up into the glaciers and carried south.  Ice melted and everything fell out.  Some washed to distant oceans, some stayed nearby as sand dunes or southern soil.  The Michigan is sand dumped by the glacier.  Today we are in an inter-glacial period between the fifth (most recent ice age) and the next one.

For Heaven’s Gate and the La Cloche, ice and melt waters scoured and rounded the mountains.  The scouring left striations and scratches in the hills that show the direction of glacial movement.  And there are visible concussions where rocks falling from the glacier, struck the mountain left bruises.

As the glaciers melted there were several related changes.

The Ice Ages sterilized the soil.  As a result, there are no native earth worms in the area and soil bacteria and fungi are very different from those found in unglaciated areas farther south.

Soils and Vegetation

At Heaven’s Gate and in much of the La Cloche soils got a head start.  Areas that rose out of the lakes as melt waters were reduced in volume and as land rebounded had the advantage of bringing lake sediments into the air and with them a mix of near shore vegetation.  They also enjoyed fertilizer from fish and water plants.  This is apparent in the south facing valleys with their rich vegetation.

And it helps explain why near shore areas have better soils than higher areas.  Elevated areas are bare rock, wind exposed, 4 degrees F colder because of altitude and have a shorter growing season.

Manitoulin soils have limestone ten feet below and sand and clay from the glaciers.  In the La Cloche, the limestone is now hard glass-like quartzite and can’t contribute to soil.  Soil formation here relies on vegetation.  This is an important distinction between north and south. 

The total absence of native earth worms and presence of unusual soil bacteria and fungi means the soil has no distinct layers.  Without worms, leaf litter accumulates in deep slowly rotting layers.  It is difficult to see a difference between soils a foot deep versus four feet.  With earth worms, litter breaks down in a year and soil has distinct layers. In addition, worms change the fungi and bacteria that make soil nutrients available to plants, often specific to individual species.  Worms kill off the unique fungi making the soil unsuitable for many native mushrooms, North American orchids, and trees.  Worms of any kind should be kept out of the North or much of what is unique will be lost.

Vegetation, soil, soil bacteria, fungi, is all new since the melt.  We have an idea of what was growing based on studies of pollen in lake sediments.  Again, in stages:

1          From the melt about 10,500 years ago until 7,500 years back the area was spruce forest.  Spruce can exist in poor cold wet soils and cope with high winds. Think Newfoundland.

2          Spruce and Jack pine were replaced by White Pine and Birch roughly 5,000 years ago. 

3          And 4,000 years back hemlock, maple, some oak, and elm, warmth loving hardwoods appeared.  Hardwoods mark the north south boundary by being found only in the protected valleys with longer growing seasons and older deeper soil. 

4          Varying with altitude and distance to the lake some of each of these forest mixes remain.  Heaven’s Gate’s forests have been stable for 2,500 years despite fire and forestry.  These ecosystems evolve slowly, only adding hardwoods in four millennia.  It’s what healthy ecosystems do.

Human Impacts

Native people arrived soon after the melt.  Less than 2,000 years.  (I don’t know of any signs of native settlement on Heaven’s Gate.)  The south slope is a deer wintering ground and still good hunting. 

1649, Iroquois fought Ojibwa at the potholes just west of Heaven’s Gate.  It was the last try by the Iroquois to move north.  Perhaps it gave the French another 100 years in North America and may have meant Ontario did not come under early English control as part of New York or Pennsylvania, and stayed separate from the 13 Colonies and so British, then Canadian.

I think the top of Ararat was used for a survey beacon (1820) to help settle the Canada-US border.

Also following the war, in the 1830’s and 40’s, many natives in Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Minnesota migrated to Canada to remain under British rule and avoid the Indian Wars in the US.  

1845 Wallace Mine was patented.  It followed a more formal approach than the mine at Bruce Mines a few months before with a view to establishing stable relations with First Nations through the treaty process.  Three holes were dug.  Some nickel extracted.  And there has been exploration in the 1960’s and 70’s, but no evidence of anything likely to be in demand in quantities that would attract interest.

Trapping and bounties greatly reduced cougar, wolves, and wolverines.  They are recovering but wolverines have not been in the area in a long time.  

Logging, primarily by the Spanish River Logging Company from 1882 to 1922 was a major change.  The company wasted timber, falsified accounts, and took trees where they had no permit.  The pilings near Swift Current and chains and eyes in rocks for holding booms are remaining signs of their time in Bay of Islands.  The near shore of Heaven’s Gate was cut.  Happily, the re-growth is similar to the original forest, though the oldest white pine are only 100 to 140 years old, rather than 150 to 500 years old.  We will have 200 plus year old pine in six decades.  And we still have cedar, hemlock and maple that were not cut and have two centuries plus notched up.

Future human activity.  Keep earth worms out.  Small forest fires if any.  Hiking.  Cross country skiing

Why Is It Special?

Age:  Heaven’s Gate has both the oldest exposed rocks on earth and some of its youngest soils.

Undisturbed:  In spite of cutting the forest is little changed in 4,000 years, 2,500 years for hardwoods.  Bird life, vegetation, has carried on with rich variety and sanctuary for a dozen listed rare species.

Soils:  Soil in glaciated areas had no worms and different fungi and bacteria leading to plant life that is denser, and more responsive to the change in seasons than that in the south. 

Juxtaposition:  The La Cloche and to a lesser degree, east Georgian Bay, Muskoka and the 1,000 Islands are where the North comes farthest south.  We get the romance of the north and summers of the south.  Bay of Islands has the best of this, as our north is rugged mountains, our south Manitoulin.

Heritage:  Small but important parts of our history for natives and newcomers happened on and near Heaven’s Gate.  Perhaps, a largely unmarked event that led Ontario to be Canadian.  It is the setting for early and well-known Group of Seven paintings.  The art is safe in galleries for a century.  Now an important original is also safe.

We love it:  Loving something or someone draws us closer and involves us.  Becoming involved we enjoy it more; know we are part of it and have some responsibility for them or it. 

Our most important use of Heaven’s Gate is to be thankful for it, and by extension, for all creation.  If we let it, Heaven’s Gate connects us to nature and creation, each other, and the creator.  It is where North best meets South and where we best meet each other and all we revere.